THE PIANO BRAIN: Motivation and Piano Practice

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

 

Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.

In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.

External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.

Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.”  External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.  Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.

Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.

Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed?  However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts.  They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.

Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.

“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)

An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.

 

  • “I’m not getting any better.”
  • “I’m no good at this.”
  • “I just can’t do it.”

 

Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.

Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.

When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.”  The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:

“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)

 

The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.

References:

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.

Neff, Kristin. 2011. Self-Compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of Learning Strategies for Musical Success.

THE PIANO BRAIN: MUSIC, CHARACTER, AND MORAL DEVELOPMENT

by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

American Council of Piano Performers

white-spaceIn 2015, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at Birmingham University called for character education to be embedded in the UK curriculum.  The report linked strong character traits such as resilience and perseverance to higher educational achievement, employability, and social, emotional, and physical health.  Character matters.  It is critical for personal happiness, maintaining relationships, and essential for an ordered society.  Character strengths help people thrive and become the best version of themselves.  But how is it taught, cultivated and nurtured?  The family is the first place where moral cultivation begins. If adults wish to raise children of good character, they should start by showing them through their own actions.

Children may not listen to their parents, but they never fail to imitate them. – James A. Baldwin (OBM), 1924 –1987, American social critic.

UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan (MGBH), in her quest to help schools teach character, says one way is to learn a musical instrument. Supporting her claim, the Jubilee Centre study found that students involved in choir/music or drama performed significantly better on character tests than any other school-based extra-curricular activity. There is nothing new in this modern-day appeal for character education to be embedded in schools, nor in the relationship between character formation and musical learning. The great thinkers Rousseau (OBM), Kant (OBM), and John Locke (OBM) viewed the aim of education to enable children to think for themselves with the aim of becoming virtuous.  The views of Confucius (OBM), Pythagoras (OBM), and Aristotle (OBM) are also worth noting. Confucius (551–479 BC) believed the real purpose of education was, rather than to get a job, to become a better person. The cultivation of the self should be a daily renovation, and is a life-long process, requiring constant work and practice. A zitherist, Confucius considered music education indispensable for character cultivation:

Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practices.

Because of the deep influence music exerts on a person, and the change it produces on manners and customs, the ancient kings appointed it as one of the subjects of instruction.

A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music?

 

Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practices.

 

Confucius suggested that the teaching of music, along with poetry, history and ritual, be the foundation for teaching moral behavior. This involved integrating songs and music into the curriculum that reinforced Chinese (Confucian) values and moral virtue. His view has support throughout history, for instance from Napoleon Bonaparte (OBM): “A moral book might change a person’s mind but not his heart, and therefore, not his ways. However, a piece of moral music would change his heart, and where the heart goes the mind will follow and the person’s ways will change”. To be a person of character is a choice from less virtuous alternatives. Accordingly, moral choice would be arrived at through a change of heart influenced by music. Like Confucius, English philosopher Roger Scruton (OBM) equates a decline in musical taste with a decline in morals, arguing that “beauty should be restored to its traditional position in music.”

In China, Confucianism is undergoing a renaissance, particularly evident in education.  A major reason modern-day Chinese parents value learning a musical instrument is that it provides a vehicle for visible application, thoroughness and commitment. Likewise, Aristotle (385-322 BC) believed that character is formed by doing.  One can only learn about commitment by being committed to a cause.  One learns to delay gratification by exercising the patience and experiencing the discomfort that comes with the wait.  Aristotle believed that the development of character strengths took time, being taught and learned through opportunity and practice. The repetition of the act becomes a habit, evident in thoughts, feelings, and actions, resulting in consistent patterns of action.

Human excellence, in morality as in musicality, comes about as a result of habit. – Aristotle, Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics

Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action.

 

Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action.

 

Aristotle’s teacher – Plato (OBM), believed that music permeated the recesses of the soul nurturing goodness, but that improper music had a “dangerous capacity to inspire lawlessness and boldness”.

Pythagoras (OBM) (570-490 BC) may well be the first person on record who employed music as a therapeutic agent. He believed that beauty and truth combined in music, and could “quell the passions of the soul”. In his philosophy, medicine and therapy were based on music.  Pythagoras believed that an appreciation of beauty aided recovery from illness, a position now supported by modern-day research.  He called the medicine obtained through music purification.  Hence, music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify manners, character, and physical ailments.  Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again.

 

[…] music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify both manners, character, and physical ailments.  Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again.

 

At night, Pythagoreans sang certain songs to induce sleep and sweet dreams. In the morning, they sang different songs to awaken and prepare for the day.  Sometimes the music was instrumental, played on the lyre alone.  Pythagoras considered the study of music essential for a rational understanding of God and nature.  Therefore, in Ancient Greek society, the primary goal of studying music was for learning moral behavior.  If education is about integrating thought, Pythagoras and the Greek thinkers who followed him led the way.

Contrast this regard for music by the Ancient Greeks and classical China to the Roman Empire that followed.  Music was not valued beyond entertainment, and became peripheral in education and culture.  Rather than arts, science, and intellectual thought, Rome’s focus was conquest and pleasure.  One of the main reasons attributed for the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline in moral character.  If only they had listened to Confucius.

 

Music is the only one of all the arts that does not corrupt the mind. – Montesquieu (OBM), 1689 – 1759, French Philosopher

 

There is no definitive set of character traits, but consider perseverance, commitment, and self-discipline.  Character is the X factor in expert performance.  Many people desire to learn music but give up too early without ever fully exploring their potential. Often, the reason given is lack of talent. A more likely explanation is the lack of character traits required for the challenge. Being a musician is a testament to character.  Almost 2500 years ago, Plato believed that “music training is a more potent instrument than any other.” Hopefully, the world will again give music the place it deserves in education.  There are positive signs. In April, 2015, it was announced that for the first time in USA education history, music will be a core subject in draft federal education policy (Every Child Achieves Act of 2015).

 

Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration.

 

Listening to music has long been argued as a method for developing children’s listening skills.  Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration.  Good music cultivates the mind.  Equally, another study found that listening to music with lyrics about alcohol makes people more likely to drink. Yet another study found a link between music embodying aggression, sex and violence, with antisocial behavior.  Music influences behavior. These studies might serve to argue against the popular contention that there is no such thing as good or bad music.

Next to the Word of God, music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits. – St Augustine of Hippo

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’.

 

 

 

THE PIANO BRAIN: MUSIC AND MINDSET

by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

“Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts.
There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven
!”
-Ludwig van Beethoven

 

Ludwig van Beethoven (OBM) showed scant respect for those who generated their sense of worth through birthright alone. In his view, achievement and success were the result of effort and perseverance. But most people see it differently. The majority – even 75% of music educators – subscribe to a theory that superior achievement in music is part of a genetic endowment. Most will put that it must also include hard work, opportunities, parental encouragement and so forth, but ultimately, one must have the X factor, the natural, unbidden genetic talent, to really achieve. Logically, knowledge and ability can only derive from genetic endowment or living experience, so it must be one or the other, or the combination theory. The problem with gene theory is that researchers are yet to find gene systems among the 25 000 or so genes with which we are born that result in special musical ability. If musical talent or any other talent is innate then there must be a gene for it. Where is the evidence of genes for complex and multi-faceted behaviours? This is the challenge for talent theorists. Talent genes may well be discovered in the future but if they do not exist, then where does musicality emanate? Can something come from nothing? Is talent a gift from G-d? Homer (OBM) seemed to think so. From the Ancient World through the Renaissance, artistic skill was viewed as an intuitive gift rather than the result of effort. To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom.  Ignorance is not a point of view. We must get to the truth of this because of the seismic impact of the implications. According to talent theory, some lucky individuals win the genetic lottery. They are born with musical talent and fortunate circumstances allow them to find opportunities to nurture this gift early in their lives.  So-called evidence for this is anecdotal and stories of exceptional prodigies abound. How, for example, could Mozart’s (OBM) precocity be explained in any other way?

To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom.

Actually, Mozart’s musical feats can be explained rationally. The biographies of all great composers reveal substantial and sustained early training, supported by family and tutors. Mozart was no different. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction 230 years after the event, but several factors do help account for his accomplishments. Mozart was immersed in a concentrated musical environment from his earliest days. His father, Leopold (OBM), was an excellent music educator and took every opportunity to earnestly promote his son’s musical ability. Stories such as that of two-year-old Wolfgang identifying the sound of pig squeals as G-sharp should be taken with a grain of salt, as they were most likely spawned by his father, who was not always honest in relation to his son where music was concerned. As Camille Saint-Saens (OBM) says, “History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myths .” Leopold was known to subtract a year from the ages of his children, Wolfgang and Nannerl, when advertising their performances. Leopold was a smart operator. He knew that lowering his children’s ages would augment their appeal and perhaps enhance his own reputation as a teacher; it is not unusual for parents to embellish facts to help their children get ahead. A closer inspection of Mozart’s childhood compositions indicates assistance from his father as well as thematic material borrowed from other composers, notably Johann Christian Bach (OBM), with whom Mozart collaborated in London at the age of nine. If we accept that these are normal processes that lead to achievement, even extraordinary achievement, then none of this is an issue. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process, and lying about a child’s age does not detract from the skills exhibited. However, it does skew the picture. The possibility that Mozart’s great desire to make music was rooted in pre-birth fortune cannot be ruled out, but his early musical environment was encouraging and inspiring. Having a great passion for music—and a supportive even if overbearing, micro-managing and opportunistic father—led him to take advantage of his opportunities and to practice for several hours a day from the age of two.  Estimates have Mozart reaching an accumulated practice figure of 10, 000 hours by the age of eight.

Even if you take the position that a child is born with genetic potential, this potential can only become skill and ability through work. As John Maxwell (MGBH) implies in the title of his book Talent Is Never Enough, major achievement requires preparation and persistence on top of any natural potential. This is most true as we progress in our skills. The assumed natural talent that differentiates children becomes less evident as they age, as dedication and sheer hard work play greater roles in achievement. Malcolm Gladwell says, “The further a career develops, the less important the role of assumed innate ability in comparison with preparation or practice”. Quality and quantity of practice develop expertise.

 

She plays so well because she has talent. How do I know she has talent? That’s obvious, she plays so well!

 

In every case, identifying talent is retrospective, and the emergence of prodigious skill follows rather than precedes unique opportunity and substantial work. In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity is the result of early childhood experiences, parental support, a young starting age, training, practice hours, habits, metacognitive skills, and opportunity. What distinguishes prodigies is the fact that they are constantly compared with children their own age, rather than with others who have accrued similar quantities of practice hours, similar opportunities, and family support. Take Tiffany Poon (MGBH) for example. Born in Hong Kong in 1997, this girl has experienced a meteoric rise as a concert pianist and has been lauded far and wide for her giftedness and substantial accomplishments. No doubt it is rare to find a child her age who has achieved so much and who plays the piano so well. At the age of eight, Tiffany accepted the opportunity of a scholarship at The Juilliard School in New York City, and flourished. As is usually the case with young achievers, testimonials on her website make age comparisons.

“Tiffany Poon possessed skills of a kind that I had never observed in such a young musician. She displays a sense of musical maturity that goes well beyond her current age.” – Gary McPherson (MGBH), Ormond Chair of Music, Head of the School of Music, University of Melbourne.

“Tiffany Poon plays with technical skills well beyond her years.” – the Columbus Dispatch.

Tiffany’s biography states that she started playing on a toy piano at the age of two and when she began formal lessons at age four-and-a-half she practiced four hours a day for the next two years. If we assume Tiffany had a rest day and practiced six days per week, this totals 1,248 hours of practice. This is substantial for one so young and is many times the practice hours of other children of that age. Assuming that fifteen minutes is about the average daily practice time for this age group, we have a 1,600 percent differential in practice time. Professor John Sloboda (MGBH) says, “There is no evidence of a fast track for high achievers,” which suggests that in terms of time expenditure, the pathway to progress is basically the same for everyone. To achieve you must put in the hours and do the work. In one study Sloboda found that predominantly it takes individuals about 1,200 practice hours to reach a formal music examination level of Grade Five, and 3,300 practice hours to reach Grade Eight. Accumulation of practice hours is not the only factor in musical achievement, but it is the predominant one.

We owe it to Tiffany to give her the credit for having achieved excellence. As an infant she had an intense curiosity for music and quickly developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Note also that the testimonial from the Columbus Dispatch refers to “technical” skills. Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special.  Tiffany’s parental support also has significantly influenced her achievement.  Not only did the family relocate from Hong Kong for the express purpose of gaining a better music education for Tiffany, but Tiffany’s parents also instilled in her the critical learning strategies we call deliberate practice. From the earliest stages of Tiffany’s musical development her mother challenged her to play through passages several times correctly in succession. This game taught Tiffany the power of repetition. Contrast this with how most children practice music. One study found that more than 90 percent of children’s practice time was spent playing pieces from beginning to end only once and without stopping to correct any errors. In their coaching, Tiffany’s parents showed great astuteness, especially considering neither of them had any formal musical training.

Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special.

Carol Dweck (MGBH) predicts developmental problems for students praised for innate talent rather than effort. Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do. Natural ability should not need to make an effort. People labelled as ‘naturally talented’ or ‘gifted’ can be ruthlessly protective of their labels and therefore avoid challenges or risks that might lead to their making mistakes. This desire to look smart and prove their intelligence, at the expense of improving it, must be preserved at all costs. This mindset is more likely to hide rather than correct mistakes, and following a setback, is less persistent when compared with growth-mindset individuals. Hence the typical combination – gifted and lazy. On the other hand, people who believe their intelligence is a potential to be developed through effort are less worried about short-term mistakes, difficulties, and failures. They view these events as an essential part of the learning process. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process. The advantage of the growth-mindset is not just about learning how to succeed but about learning how to persevere when one does not succeed.

Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do…. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process.

To prove or improve my intelligence; that is the mindset question!

Research into the effects of mindset on achievement is of particular interest to music educators. Susan O’Neill (MGBH) found noticeable differences in the practice efficiency among children exhibiting different mindset. For one, fixed-intelligence-mindset children practiced roughly twice as much as growth-intelligence-mindset children to reach the same level of moderate performance achievement. Fixed-intelligence-mindset students use their time less efficiently. They are more likely to avoid practicing pieces or passages that pose particular difficulties. These children probably spend more time on what they already can play well, which might be enjoyable but will hardly improve performance. Growth-intelligence-mindset children are more likely to embrace the challenges that lead to mastery. It is not easy to teach learning strategies to fixed-intelligence-mindset students who have deep-set beliefs about their potential. Unless this mindset is reformed, they emerge as adults with stifling doubts about their capacity to learn. In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner (MBGH0 refers to “the menacing voices from childhood” – the struggle to learn is very often a result of being told that the task is really difficult, or you have not the talent for it. The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.” By attributing failure to lack of effort or poor practice strategies, rather than natural ability, teachers and parents can help transform mindset.

The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.”

 

 

An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author and pianist. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition, and intrinsic motivation. His latest book is “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”